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The music documentary is filling the void left by the death of the music video. (That’s not as catchy a sentence as “video killed the radio star,” but it will do for now.)

This spring has already seen the release of Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Dave Chapelle’s Block Party. Now you can catch two more: The Devil and Daniel Johnston opens at theaters and Palm Pictures has released a DVD of Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt.

Daniel Johnston

Johnston is the cartoonist
Johnston is the cartoonist

The better of these films is The Devil and Daniel Johnston, in part because its subject is more dynamic. Daniel Johnston is hailed as a genius in both music and art circles. Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary takes Johnston’s genius as a given, although seeing and hearing his earliest work is like looking at a real-life Napoleon Dynamite. The artwork looks like little more than notebook doodles, and the music is recorded in Daniel’s parents’ basement. How Johnston gets from high school art class to modern-day genius is a pretty interesting trip.

Johnston’s own life provides much of the interest. A manic-depressive, Johnston seems to have always lived life on the edge. He fell obsessively in love with a girl in community college. When that didn’t pan out, he ran away with the circus. He landed in Austin and got a gig without anyone having heard his demo tape. The music critics at the local paper happened to “get” his sound (another stroke of luck, in my opinion), and although he worked at McDonald’s, he was an MTV and Austin phenomenon. His illness got the better of him in the middle of his career, but the movie ends with his “comeback” and his return to (relative) normalcy.

Some of the film’s appeal also comes from the question of Johnston’s genius. The Whitney museum recently chose some of Johnston’s work (probably hung on the wall with scotch tape, if the footage from his L.A. gallery opening is any indicator), and many better-known recording artists have covered Johston’s music. And yet, from the glimpse of Johnston that we get, it’s hard not to think that his fame is all part of some grand joke, played by the musically hip on those of us who aren’t.

Townes Van Zandt

Van Zandt is the cowboy poet
Van Zandt is the cowboy poet

Be Here to Love Me is a much more traditional music documentary. Maybe it’s just that the subject fits into the traditional, recognizable boundaries of the music documentary genre. Though Van Zandt was a troubled troubadour, his alcoholism seems like a minor ghoul compared to Daniel’s manic-depressive devil.

Both singers play guitar and sing in a less-than-polished voice. Both are noted for their songwriting skills, and for their perfect use of lyrics. Both might be found under the heading “folk,” but they really do have different styles. Van Zandt is almost a cowboy poet, leaning more toward the country side of folk music (Poncho and Lefty may be his best-known song). Johnston seems more urban (not black, but urban) and pop-oriented.

Be Here to Love Me is a mostly-chronological account of Van Zandt’s life. There is footage from his silver-spoon childhood (presumably from Boulder, Colorado, although I may be wrong about that). When there isn’t film or video footage, there is often an audio recording, which filmmaker Margaret Brown matches with modern footage of the places from his past, shot from inside an old pickup truck.

Both documentaries make good use of found audio recordings, home movies, and up-to-date interviews with colleagues and family. But where The Devil and Daniel Johnston can get under your skin, Be Here to Love Me seems to roll off your back. It is competently assembled from year of research, but it just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch.

One Last Connection

There is one coincidental crossover that I have to mention. In our interview with Jeff Feuerzig (director of the Johnston documentary), he recommended an album by Devendra Banhart. In the DVD extras on the Van Zandt movie is a performance and interview by Banhart. The performance is very good, but the interview is outstanding. Not since Dennis Hopper’s drug-addled rant at the end of Apocalypse Now have I seen such a gorgeously incoherent monologue.